Faster! Higher! Stronger!
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Faster! Higher! Stronger! A familiar trilogy as the Sydney games come to a close tonight. Faster! Higher! Stronger! Citius, Altius, Fortius – the motto and the overarching goal of the Olympic competitors.
Have you been watching the games? I have…some. Not all, of course. By the time it is over tonight, NBC will have offered on broadcast and cable some 270 hours of coverage, and anyone watching it all will win the Couch-Potato gold medal.
There have been some good stories – the unexpected victories by overlooked competitors. My favorite, though, is the LAST place finish of Eric Moussambani, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 100-meter freestyle. Earlier this year, Eric learned to swim. He trained diligently – three days every week, a whole hour at a time – in the 20-meter pool of a local hotel. But the trouble with swimming in the Olympics is that the competition is in an Olympic-size pool – 50-meters. And the 100-meter event means swimming it twice, and in front of 17,500 screaming fans! Well, Eric had never even come close to swimming 100 meters before. Halfway through the first heat of the race (which he had to swim alone because his two fellow competitors had been disqualified for false starts), he began to flail away and appeared in danger of drowning – people were ready to jump in and rescue him. But he hung in there, dog-paddling his way home in just under 1:53 to some of the loudest cheers of the games, not quite twice the time it took for his nearest competitor (who ended up 70th) to finish the race.
I love it. It turns out that Eric Moussambani learned that the Sydney Olympics would fly any competitor to the games for free, plus house and feed them, and, in general, treat them like royalty, so he decided he wanted in on the action. Wonderful.
Granted, that is the exception. Most of the 10,000 athletes who came to the competition were top-notch. They had trained long and hard, were ready to offer their best, and they did. Faster! Higher! Stronger!
It is not much of a stretch to imagine that, were he around and were it possible, one of those two-million-plus spectators would have been the Apostle Paul. As all the sports metaphors that dot his epistles indicate, Paul was obviously a fan. Regularly we encounter references to athletic contests: running, wrestling, boxing. He uses the language of training: pressing, stretching, pushing, straining – words that make the lungs burn, the temples pound, the muscles ache, and the perspiration roll. And at the end of it all, VICTORY – the crown awarded to every winner. “…Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Competitors use every edge to come out on top, some legal, some ILlegal as the continuing doping scandals attest. In recent years, one of those “edges” has been the use of Sports Psychologists who help teams and individual competitors prepare mentally for their events. Bodies do not work without minds, and bodies will work best when the mind is also working best.
Apparently Paul had similar insight. According to our brief lesson, he knew that mental preparation was crucial to running this spiritual race called the Christian life. “Forgetting what is behind…” Not being a slave to old disappointments, defeats, or hurts. Attitude! Positive thinking! Focusing on possibilities instead of problems.
You and I may never get to be world-class athletes, but we CAN be world-class Christians. Listen to advice that comes from the Sports Psychologists and then baptize it – put it to work in the name of Jesus.
First, SET GOALS. Just as a runner or swimmer would choose a time to beat, choose some specific and measurable goals (Bible study, prayer, attendance, some particular service to be performed in the name of Jesus) that will help you grow and make you a better disciple. And, just as with athletics, working with training partners – other church people – who have similar goals can help you maintain your energy and motivation. As you go on, be prepared to adjust your levels and keep setting higher goals.
Second, FOCUS. When you are ready to start any athletic endeavor, clear out the mental clutter. This means ignoring any real or imagined distractions around you. Once you start, keep concentrating on the task at hand. When you are finished, take time to mentally review everything good and bad about what you did, whether it was something on your own or something done in a group. Take that review, learn from it and build.
Third, use a little STRESS. Competitive athletes know a little stress helps their performance. What that means is do not worry if things get difficult sometimes and if everything is not effortlessly falling into place. Any goal worth achieving will take genuine effort, and there will be times that to take two steps forward we have to take one step back. Frustrating, yes. Let the stress be a challenge, not a reason to give up.
Finally, visualize yourself WINNING. Close your eyes and picture the completion of your tasks, the satisfaction of a job well done, even crossing that finish line and hearing your Lord and Savior say, “Well done.”
The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 provided a wonderful parable.(1) Britain’s Derek Redmond had dreamed all his life of winning a gold medal in the 400-meter race, and his dream was in sight as the gun sounded in the semifinals. He was running the race of his life and could see the finish line as he rounded the turn into the backstretch. Suddenly, he felt a sharp pain go up the back of his leg. He fell, face first, on to the track with a torn right hamstring.
As the medical attendants were approaching, Redmond fought to his feet. He set out hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race. When he reached the stretch, a large man in a T-shirt came charging out of the stands, hurled aside a security guard and ran to Redmond, embracing him. It was Jim Redmond, Derek’s dad. “You don’t have to do this,” he told his son.
“Yes, I do,” said Derek as the tears streamed down his face.
“Well, then,” said Jim, “we’re going to finish this together.” And they did. Fighting off security men, the son’s head sometimes buried in his father’s shoulder, they stayed in Derek’s lane all the way to the end, as the crowd watched, then rose and roared and wept.
Derek did not win the gold, but he walked away with an incredible memory of a father who, when he saw his son in pain, came to him to help him finish the race.
Derek was not alone. You are not alone. I am not alone. Faster! Higher! Stronger! Whatever our goal, we are loved and cared for, encouraged and helped by the one who invites us and all our fellow competitors to his training table.
1. from Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks, Wayne Rice, 1994
Copyright 2000 David E. Leininger. Used by permission.